Maestro Subgum and the Whole are taking a break from rehearsal, but they’re using the time productively to talk of–what else?–bodily functions. “Me and Ned have the Best Combined Odor,” claims trumpeter Bob Jacobson. He’s standing, wearing a low-riding pair of loose jeans and little else, with the rest of the band in the dark recesses of Club Lower Links on a recent Sunday afternoon.
“That’s right,” confirms drummer Ned Folkerth. “There was a poll or something in the Sun-Times about it.”
“We were right up there with Richie Daley and Studs Terkel,” says Jacobson.
“No, no, no–it was Studs Terkel and Harry Caray!” says Folkerth.
“Well,” says ringmaster Beau O’Reilly, hugging singer Jenny Magnus affectionately, “I think me and Jenny have the BCO.”
“That’s biggest combined odor,” someone says.
The eight-member aggregation was preparing for this weekend’s appearance, a tape release party at Chicago Filmmakers, where they expect a significantly larger crowd than they get at their weekly appearances at Lower Links. What exactly Maestro Subgum and the Whole is, and what exactly whatever it is does, however, remains an open question. It’s basically a rock group, except that it doesn’t have any electric guitars, relying instead on trumpet, euphonium, and piano for the main melodic drive. Anywhere from one to eight people sing at any one time, though there are generally four lead singers–O’Reilly, his sister Kate, his son Colm, and Magnus. The band is sort of a cabaret act and sort of a performance-art ensemble, with a large debt to mainline Brechtianism –but neither of these descriptions accounts for the band’s recidivist excursions into pop. If you can imagine what the Spike Jones orchestra would sound like conducted by Kurt Weill and playing songs by They Might Be Giants and Karen Finley, you’ll get an idea what to expect from Maestro Subgum and the Whole.
They’ve been charming audiences Friday nights at Club Lower Links since November, but the band goes back more than ten years, having its roots with O’Reilly in the Madison counterculture of the 70s. For a time in the mid-80s, the Maestro was more explicitly rock oriented and found itself popular enough to headline at Park West: “We were a pretty pop rock band,” says O’Reilly. “We had a lot of fun and did a lot of drugs and drank a lot. Then everything crashed at some point, and those of us who wanted to continue doing it realized we didn’t want to do it like that anymore.”
Today the band performs with an apparent casualness–members wandering around the audience and so forth–that belies the tightness of the arrangements and the spirited complexity of the singing. O’Reilly’s onstage persona is a rather scary character called Lefty Fizzle, a hippified cross between the Joel Grey character in Cabaret and Bozo the clown. He’s flanked by Magnus, in jeans and tank top, and sister Kate, in a sensible black dress. Son Colm wears a hobo hat and sings when he’s not running the sound board. And arrayed behind and around the singers are pianist Michael Greenberg, who writes a lot of the band’s music, horn players Jacobson and Blair Thomas, and drummer Folkerth.
But the best part is the songs themselves: it’s like watching a musical written by people who actually understand the different musical genres they’re working in. Big-band horn figures punctuate one song, laconic country-and-western lilts adorn the next, blues shouts figure later on, and through it all killer hooks rule. BCO medalist Jacobson’s “Gotta Lotta Love” is a pretty love-amidst-the-squalor number that brusquely rhymes “vermin gnaw me” with “because we”; “1-2-3” is a nod to C-and-W weepers (“I thought we’d last 1-2-3 forever / For you I 5-6-7 ate my pride”). Singer Magnus is a standout; she roams the fields of sexual politics with an acerbic charm. (The Finley influence is quite light, actually.) “Well, I believe my favorite part,” she sings on “Circumstance (Love Butt),” “Is that which sits atop the heart / Man tit! / No shit.” And a nightly showstopper is “Jane Says” (adapted from a play by her brother Bryn Magnus), a cheerfully violent fantasy of envy done for eight voices, bongos, and euphonium.
About that name: “Originally,” says O’Reilly, “we had a very classical pianist who did a lot of consciously Brechtian-type stuff, who was well-trained musically. That’s where the “Maestro’ comes from. “Subgum’ is just diced and mixed vegetables. The notion was that “maestro’ was the thing and then “subgum’ was anywhere we wanted to go. And the “whole’ was just the whole whole of the thing.”
Maestro Subgum and the Whole perform Saturday at Chicago Filmmakers, 1229 W. Belmont, at 8 PM. You can call 421-3733 for more information or to reserve tickets ($5). Maestro will play two sets; opening will be poet John Starrs, the Reader’s own John Shaw singing, and the Red Moon Theater, Blair Thomas’s puppet outfit.
Through March, the ensemble’s weekly appearance at Lower Links, 954 W. Newport (248-5238), has been moved to Sunday nights. They play at 8:30 PM; cover is $4.
Great leaps and other crimes: Local filmmaker Bob Hercules was asked by Elektra to make a documentary on Billy Bragg; the hour-long result, Which Side Are You On?, premieres tonight. Bragg is the surpassingly talented British singer-songwriter who spends his time writing equally about love and politics and usually sings accompanied by nothing more than an electric guitar. Hercules followed Bragg around on a recent van-blasting tour of the south, focusing particularly on a benefit Bragg played for striking miners in North Carolina. Besides a couple of nice video collages–shots and audio clips of Reagan and other creeps, historical footage of violence against strikers–we mostly see Bragg on- and offstage, horsing around, making common cause with working folks, and singing, again and again, those beautiful songs. Hercules gives the music lots of room; instead of fragments of dozens of songs, we get seven or eight complete, including a ringing, unadorned “Ideology” (Bragg’s bitter rewrite of “Chimes of Freedom”) and an ensemble version of the epic “Waiting for the Great Leap Forwards.” Which Side Are You On? will be shown tonight as part of a three-video benefit for a planned documentary on the upcoming Nicaraguan elections by Hercules’ film company, Media Process. The other films are Tools for Strength, about a labor support project in a Nicaraguan village, and excerpts from The World Is Watching, a documentary on the world news coverage of the 1987 Nicaraguan elections. The films will be shown at 8 PM at the ACTWU hall, 333 S. Ashland, just north of the Eisenhower. Admission is $5; call 226-3330 for more information.
Green news: Jeff Lescher’s Combo plays tonight at Orphans: filling in for departed bassist Ken Kurson is Slammin’ Watusi Clay Tomasek. Green’s new album White Soul will be released domestically within a couple of months, Lescher says; the European version, on Megadisc, has sold out on the continent, and no LP copies made it to America. The CD turns up now and again in local stores. The band leaves for a five-week European tour March 1.
See the ad for Dave Edmunds and friends at the Riviera March 24? The friends include Graham Parker, Steve Cropper, Ventures guitarist Kim Wilson, and a guy from Philly named Dion.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Paul L. Meredith.